The Black Stars have it all to play for at the Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon, but a series of stumbling blocks stand in their way as they embark on a journey to end Ghana’s 35-year wait for a trophy.
The president of the Ghana Football Association (GFA), Kwesi Nyantekyi has already laid down the gauntlet as to what the nation’s targets are, going into the tournament. “I have already said – and I still maintain – that our target is to win the AFCON 2017,” he confidently opined. But as Ghana embarks on the journey to Gabon in search of that elusive fifth trophy, the prospects do not look all bright and there may be some stumbling blocks.
Pulse Sports takes a look at why the Black Stars may not win the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.
The Black Stars have gained cult status in African football for the better part of the last decade. But that did not come as a result of sheer luck; it came as a result of the impeccable performances that the team churned out during that period. Qualifying for three successive World Cups and playing in semi-finals of the last five editions of the AFCON typifies how impressive Ghana has been in the last couple of years. Sadly, the standards have dropped and the Black Stars are gradually losing that fear factor. In recent times, results have been poor and it boils down to the genuine lack of quality in the current team.
The days when the likes of Michael Essien, Stephen Appiah and Sulley Muntari bullied and dominated other nations are long gone. It is not as if the Black Stars once boasted of an entirely world class squad, but the fact is that the current crop of players do not match in anyway when it comes to quality as compared to their predecessors. The Black Stars have always been built on a strong midfield base. The current squad lacks that, coupled with another conundrum of some players who are on the verge of going extinct.
Asamoah Gyan, for all his goals, is no longer the all-action forward that he once was. He has been blighted by a series of niggling injuries which have ruled him out of majority of Black Stars matches. The goalkeeping situation remains a problem with both Razak Braimah and Kwarasay continually being unconvincing. The defense is no exception; the central defensive partnership of John Boye and Jonathan Mensah has been breached far too easily when tested. That, added to the fact that Afful Harrison and Baba Rahman are going through their worst run of form should get every Ghanaian worried. The midfield – which used to be the strength of the Black Stars – is now being manned by bench-warmers. Afriyie Acquah has been inconsistent at club level, Agyemang Badu, who was supposed to be the natural heir to Essien, has stalled in his development and Kwadwo Asamoah has not played for the Black Stars in almost two years due to injury.
The lack of quality in the team could really be a stumbling block to Ghana’s AFCON ambitions, especially looking at the quality that other contenders like Ivory Coast, Egypt and Algeria bring to the fore.
While Black Stars coach, Avram Grant will be troubled by the lack of quality his in team, he will also lose some sleep on the lack of competition in his squad going into the Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon. The Black Stars coach has openly stated that he plays the same XI in order to build on continuity and establish stability, but in truth, it is because he does not trust the options he has on the bench. The starting XI of Ghana has become as predictable as sunrise. And as evidenced by the Black Stars’ lackluster performances in the World Cup qualifying matches against Uganda and Egypt, most players would have been long dropped if not for the lack of competent replacements.
Razak Braimah leads the pack in this regard. The Cordoba goalkeeper has been the undisputed No.1 for the Black Stars for over two years now but his performances have left much to be desired. Braimah is not even a starter at club level, and irrespective of the below-par performances that he puts up, he is sure to be the man manning the post for the Black Stars when they take on Uganda in the AFCON opener. Adam Kwarasey – the man supposed to be pushing for the No.1 spot – has been sidelined. And even when he had the opportunity against South Africa in a friendly match last month, he fluffed his lines by misjudging a shot which flew into the top corner. Full-backs Afful and Rahman have been off-colour for sometime now but there are no replacements for them on the bench.
In midfield Wakaso has not been himself in the last 12 months but has still managed to start in each of the last 10 matches of the Black Stars. Andre Ayew missed the World Cup qualifier against Uganda through injury and there was no able replacement on the bench for the West Ham man as the team laboured to a home draw. And in the striking department when Gyan is not available, it leaves a void. But a chunk of the blame would definitely go to Avram Grant for his reluctance to give other players the chance to feature or even stake a claim for a starting spot. The squad has been so narrow that the players on the bench are untried and will find it difficult to make any meaningful impacts when the first teamers are unavailable.
Then the question of whether the players on the bench have the required quality to challenge the first teamers comes in. The biggest blemish of the Israeli’s reign as Ghana coach lies in his call-ups. The gap in quality between the starting XI and the players on the bench is so wide that it makes it a one way fight for who gets the nod to start. For a team that wants to win the Africa Cup of Nations, there must be a certain level of depth in the squad, and the Black Stars currently just do not have that.
For the first time since Avram Grant joined Ghana he is under intense pressure to deliver. The Israeli has overseen one of the poorest runs of the Black Stars in recent memory. That is why many have haboured doubts about his suitability to the African game. The former Chelsea boss has steered the Black Stars to just one win in their last seven matches. That, coupled with Ghana’s winless start to the World Cup qualifiers which culminated in a 2-0 reverse at the hands of Egypt, has left the Israeli with a lot to prove in terms of his tactical nous.
Avram Grant has not been able to get to the heights he achieved in 2008 when he took Chelsea to the finals of the UEFA Champions League. In the early stages of his reign he impressively steered the Black Stars to the final of the AFCON in Equatorial Guinea two years ago, but recent results have not been good enough and that has led to questions being raised about his tactical knowhow. Particularly in the match against Egypt where he failed to devise a system to counter that of Hector Cuper’s men. The Black Stars labored as Grant cut a frustrated figure like a man with no gameplan. His decision to keep a half-fit Ayew on for the entire 90 minutes also raised serious questions about his substitutions and his ability to read games. Grant has seen it all in football but at this stage he has to do it all over again.
The Africa Cup of Nations, though, is not a place to try out new things and Avram Grant will have it all to do in the harshest of conditions.
This will not be as significant as the above points, but every team needs that 11 man in order to thrive – the fans. Unfortunately, the Black Stars are in a time when the fans have developed a lackadaisical attitude towards the team. After the fallout from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the team has lost the backing of the home fan base. Even in the recent matches that the Black Stars have played on home soil, they have been met by almost stadiums. In 2012 when Zambia won the AFCON, one major factor that the players alluded to was the presence of a chunk of their fans. The Black stars are currently denied that and it remains to be seen how many Ghanaian supporters will travel to Gabon to support the team.
In the recent past, fans used to meet Black Stars matches with a sense of ecstasy. But now all that euphoria seems to have died and the team will surely miss that when they play in Gabon. The fans are the spirit and backbone of every team. They cheer their teams on when the going gets tough. But as the Black Stars go to war with other nations in Gabon, they will be missing the services of that 11 man and that could end up being their undoing.
2016 has been a year to forget for the Black Stars and Avram Grant. It has been full of so many inconsistencies; from the standoffs with the Minister of Youth and Sports Nii Lante Vanderpuije, to the poor results that the Black Stars have churned out. But the biggest low-point will definitely be the dire situation that Avram Grant and his charges find themselves in the World Cup qualifiers. A winless run in their first two games against Uganda and Egypt – the latter, a loss which came just last month – could prove to be a psychological weigh-down for the players.
Communications Director of the GFA, Ibrahim Saanie Daara has already stated that the Black Stars players were greatly affected by the row between the Sports Ministry and the Association. Should the team go into the Africa Cup of Nations in such a drab spirit, it could spell doom. One notable attribute of the Black Stars is the excitement that they display during tournaments. The singing, dancing and jokes they share while in camp form the building blocks for their successes. In the build-up to the matches against Uganda and Egypt, that sort of rapturous atmosphere was missing and it was as a result of the mood the players were in.
For a team going into a tournament on the back of just one win in their last six matches, it could be weighing on the minds of the players. And if the Black Stars do not win this psychological battle, then they might be kissing goodbye to the AFCON trophy in Gabon as well.